Diet Pepsi Dumps Aspartame as Consumer Backlash Hurts Sales

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Aspartame-free Diet Pepsi.

Aspartame-free Diet Pepsi.

Source: PepsiCo. Inc. via Bloomberg

PepsiCo Inc. will start selling Diet Pepsi without aspartame later this year, the biggest change to the beverage in three decades, after a consumer backlash against the artificial sweetener crushed sales.

The company will replace aspartame with a blend of sucralose and acesulfame potassium in Diet Pepsi, Caffeine Free Diet Pepsi and Wild Cherry Diet Pepsi sold in the U.S. beginning in August. The move follows a 5.2 percent decline in Diet Pepsi’s sales volume last year, according to Beverage-Digest. Sales of Coca-Cola’s Diet Coke, which also uses aspartame, dropped 6.6 percent.

PepsiCo is getting the jump on Diet Coke, the country’s No. 1 sugar-free soda, in removing the controversial sweetener. Consumers have been backing away from both brands in recent years, fearful that the lab-created sweetener may cause cancer. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has said there’s no proof of a health risk from aspartame.

“Decades of studies have shown that aspartame is safe, but the reality is that consumer demand in the U.S. has been evolving,” Seth Kaufman, senior vice president of Pepsi and the company’s flavors drinks in North America, said in an interview. “The U.S. diet cola consumer has been asking and asking and asking for an aspartame-free great diet cola.”

Coke’s Response

Even so, Coca-Cola isn’t budging.

“There are currently no plans to change the sweetener for Diet Coke, America’s favorite no-calorie soft drink,” Scott Williamson, a spokesman, said in an e-mail. “All of the beverages we offer and ingredients we use are safe.”

PepsiCo’s decision came after consumer complaints accelerated during the past two years -- with feedback flowing in through call lines, social media and letters, Kaufman said. In surveys, aspartame was the top reason given by consumers for drinking less of the diet cola, he said.

“It’s been going on for some time, and the volume of it over the past two years has really been high,” Kaufman said.

The rising worry over aspartame coincides with a surge in demand for natural ingredients, with more consumers rejecting artificial additives and highly processed foods. The trend has been stoked by social media, where nutrition advocates -- with or without formal training or scientific proof -- spread warnings faster and wider than ever.

Food Babe

Controversial blogger Vani Hari, who calls herself the Food Babe, says aspartame is “one the most dangerous substances allowed in our food supply. Aspartame is linked to diabetes, autoimmune disorders, depression (which can cause you to eat more -- once again), birth defects, and several forms of cancer.”

PepsiCo, based in Purchase, New York, doesn’t have plans to replace aspartame in Diet Mountain Dew, despite a 3 percent sales decline. That product is the company’s best-selling diet beverage after Diet Pepsi.

There are no plans to remove aspartame from other PepsiCo soft drinks either, Kaufman said. The focus for the change is on colas with declining sales. With aspartame-sweetened Pepsi Max, for example, consumers didn’t cite the ingredient as one of the top 10 reasons they were drinking less of it, Kaufman said.

The FDA approved aspartame for use in some beverages and foods in 1981. Two years later, the ingredient was allowed in carbonated beverages. It was then ruled a “general-purpose sweetener” in 1996, giving it freer rein.

Highly Studied

“Aspartame is one of the most exhaustively studied substances in the human food supply, with more than 100 studies supporting its safety,” the agency said. “FDA scientists have reviewed scientific data regarding the safety of aspartame in food and concluded that it is safe for the general population under certain conditions.”

People with a rare hereditary disease that makes it hard for them to metabolize aspartame’s phenylalanine are advised to limit its ingestion, the FDA warns. The agency requires labeling to inform people who are at risk.

Acesulfame potassium, meanwhile, was first approved for food in 1988 and is used in drinks such as Coke Zero, which also contains some aspartame. Sucralose, marketed as Splenda and used in a version of Diet Coke, was first approved in 1998. The FDA has deemed both sweeteners safe.

Cancer Rats

While Sucralose and acesulfame potassium haven’t generated the same level of fear among consumers, the sweeteners aren’t free from concern. The Center for Science in the Public Interest recommends “caution” over sucralose because of an unpublished 2012 Italian study that said the sweetener caused leukemia in mice. The Washington-based group says to “avoid” acesulfame potassium because of rat studies suggesting that the ingredient caused cancer.

Sucralose, a synthetic product of molecular engineering, may get a pass from some because it is at least derived from table sugar. Acesulfame potassium, also a synthetic chemical, hasn’t been used as widely and is lesser known to consumers.

Coca-Cola, based in Atlanta, took a shot at the aspartame revolt in mid-2013 with print ads in national publications that defended its safety. Sales of Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi both declined almost 7 percent that year.

The crisis, which came on top of a consumer reaction against high-calorie sugar-sweetened drinks, has forced Coca-Cola and PepsiCo into the lab for solutions. Both have aggressively pursued a natural, noncaloric ingredient called stevia, which is extracted from a leaf and is 200 to 300 times sweeter than sugar.

Stevia doesn’t work so well in colas, however. It gives off a metallic aftertaste when used in higher doses. So the soda makers are researching ways to ferment and bioengineer copies of a better-tasting stevia molecule found in the leaf.

As for aspartame, Kaufman declined to say how PepsiCo’s decision would affect Coca-Cola, saying only that “we’re excited that we’re the first scaled business to do it.”

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